Opponents Trash Proposed Medical Waste Facility
March 16, 2021
During a March 15 Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) hearing for a waste facility license for MedRecycler-RI, opponents repeatedly questioned why the state is considering allowing an untested system to process medical waste from across New England and New York.
“This facility does not belong in West Warwick, it does not belong in Rhode Island, and it does not belong anywhere on this planet,” East Greenwich resident Marisa Kambour said. “It’s not worth the harm it will do, or any of the accompanying risks.”
Many opponents criticized DEM for not meeting basic requirements for approving an untested waste-to-energy facility.
East Greenwich assistant solicitor Peter Skwirz asked DEM to suspend its review after noting flaws in the application process, such as a requirement for a certificate of approval from the State Planning Council for the use of the site on Division Road in West Warwick. He said site approval requires a public hearing and comment period separate from a DEM hearing. Skwirz said he confirmed with Meredith Brady, the head of Division of Statewide Planning, that her office never issued such a letter, nor was it asked to do so.
“Therefore under the statute, RIDEM should not be considering this application,” Skwirz said.
Skwirz said he brought this issue to the attention of DEM that day and was told that the rule only applies to proposed landfills. He noted that the word “landfill” isn’t mentioned in the state waste-facility siting rules. He said other chapters of state law mention siting requirements for landfills.
“The jettisoning of the State Planning Council’s site approval is just one in a number of ways that the review of this proposal has been unusual,” Skwirz said. “This issue, in particular, is illustrative of the fast-track, results-oriented process that MedRecycler has received up to this point.”
East Greenwich Town Council vice president Michael Donegan, who works as an environmental attorney, had the most visceral comment of the three-and-a-half-hour hearing.
“We’re going to have trucks driving through our neighborhoods with body parts, viruses, and pathogens,” he said. “And we are going to have the risk that these viruses and pathogens will be released through accident, through improper operation of the facility, poor design. This is unproven technology. And it’s also important to note that the applicant has absolutely zero experience running any medical waste facility, let alone this particular type of equipment, which is experimental. It is so experimental that it’s not actually in operation anywhere in the U.S. used on medical waste.”
Donegan further accused MedRecycler-RI CEO Nicholas Campanella of searching the country to find the one state agency, DEM, that would allow this type of facility.
He asked DEM to deny the permit based on the state agency’s failure to follow protocol for approving an alternative technology — specifically, for allowing the facility to be approved, built, and operating before the equipment is tested and without public scrutiny of those test results. Donegan further noted that MedRecycler-RI hasn’t met safety, health, and environmental requirements outlined in its application.
Gerald Petros, an attorney representing a tenant of the 1600 Division Road building that shares a wall with MedRecycler-RI, noted that DEM’s application requires the facility to have an undeveloped vegetated buffer surrounding the facility.
“There is no buffer zone,” Petros said. “There is a half-inch piece of wallboard that will separate this facility from my client’s business and risk the health and welfare of 70 employees. Did the applicant meet the requirement in the application? It didn’t meet the requirement. It didn’t address the requirement. It didn’t discuss the requirement. It ignored the requirement. You won’t find the word buffer in this application. There’s just a sheet of wallboard. And what did DEM say about this blatant failure? Nothing.”
He also noted that state solid waste laws require an alternative technology to receive approval from the State Planning Council.
“DEM should not have processed this application or even considered it,” Petros said. “We shouldn’t be here tonight because they haven’t met the threshold requirements.”
Of the 53 opponents who spoke against the project, most were residents from East Greenwich and nearby towns. Several raised the unfavorable comparison to the 38 Studios debacle of 2012, where the software company defaulted on a $75 million loan from the state economic development agency.
“This should ring some bells,” East Greenwich resident Carey Jeffrey said. “Does anyone remember how the commerce department gave loans to Curt Shilling to develop video games? Had he ever developed video games before? No, because he was a Boston Red Sox star. Well, you know the rest of the story. In MedRecycler’s case, instead of Boston Red Sox, substitute the words renewable energy, only this is much, much worse than a video game.”
Wearing a mask and doctor’s coat, oncologist Hina Kahn explained the history of carcinogens connected to the local textile and metals industries, carcinogens that have led to record cases of bladder cancer.
The East Greenwich resident noted that research on synthetic gas (syngas) from pyrolysis — the heating of an organic material, typically biomass, in the absence of oxygen — has concluded that the emissions need additional studying of the many harmful byproducts.
“Being a physician, I know that medical waste contains human waste, body fluids, tissue, blood,” Kahn said. “It contains plastics … and of course infectious waste, culture dishes, vaccines, contaminated materials. All of this will go into that and we do not know how this technology will be able to clean and disinfect. And again, everything ends up in our water and our soil.”
Jim Mullowney, a chemist in the hazardous-waste business, noted that MedRecycler-RI can’t safely treat chemotherapy drugs found in the waste. “It comes right out of the stack of this facility,” he said.
These chemicals, the Newport resident said, can cause birth defects and miscarriages and can skip a generation before causing birth defects.
“What the [MedRecycler-RI] system does not do is eliminate any of those hazards,” he said. “These chemicals will end up in our air, in our bay, in our soil, in our drinking water.”
Campanella, who also runs Sun Pacific Holding, was only one of three proponents of the project to speak during the recent online hearing. The others were a business partner and union representative.
He focused on jobs, tax revenue, and the space his facility will save in the state’s Central Landfill. But the Johnston landfill doesn’t currently accept medical waste even after it’s been treated in one of Rhode Island’s two autoclaves. He also described the burning of the syngas to run generators as renewable energy, a claim that hasn’t been confirmed by any state entity and doesn’t jibe with what state law considers renewable energy.
Campanella described the opposition as a political controversy.
“Just to get to the bottom line,” he said. “I guarantee the project is going to be safe and going to be a good neighbor and do whatever is required by officials that are reviewing our process.”
Sun Pacific Holding has three operations: MedRecycler-RI; a solar assembly business; and a bus stop advertising service called Street Smart Outdoors that manages bus shelter advertising for the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.
An online petition against the project has received nearly 3,000 signatures.
The operation has already received an air pollution permit from DEM.
West Warwick still has a number of approvals and reviews before the project is authorized. All state, federal, and regulatory permits are needed before the preliminary plan review can be conducted by the West Warwick Planning Board. Any restrictions, stipulations, and conditions that may be placed on the project by the Planning Board must be satisfied before a final town review begins.
DEM’s final decision on the permit will be made by director Janet Coit within 90 days of the close of the public comment period.
Written comments can be submitted until April 14 to Yan Li at [email protected].
A bill (H5923) sponsored by Rep. Justine Caldwell, D-East Greenwich, would restrict a facility like this from being built. No hearing has been set for the bill.